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God's Passion for a Pure Church

Acts 4:32—5:11 July 11, 1993 80-117

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As we turn to the Word of God to prepare our hearts for time at the Lord's table, I want you to take your Bible and open it to the fourth and fifth chapters of the book of Acts...Acts chapter 4 right at the end and chapter 5 at the beginning.  This is a very very significant text not only in the New Testament but in the history of the church because it introduces to us another one of the firsts in the book of Acts, another one of the firsts, as it were, in the life of the church.

The early days of the history of the church right after its beginnings in the power of the Holy Spirit were days of joy. They were days of love.  They were days of sharing, days of fellowship.  In fact, the joy was all but overwhelming, the love was all inclusive and deep. The testimony of the church was loud and clear.  And the result, of course, of all of this was explosive.  You move a few chapters into the book of Acts after the beginning of the church and already there are 15 to 20 thousand people who have confessed their faith in Jesus Christ.  Everything was marvelous and glorious.  Life was all that God designed and desired it to be in the church. 

Satan, of course, realized this and wanted to deal with it as best he could and so he began a persecution but when the persecution came the church met it, as you remember, head on.  They were victorious.  The more they were persecuted, the more they prayed, the more they prayed, the bolder they became.  The bolder they became, the more people believed and were added to the church.  God was real and Christ was alive and the Holy Spirit was powerful. And the church was a formidable weapon in the world, carving a swath through the kingdom of darkness.  In fact, never had there been such days for men on earth since Adam fell.  Never had Messiah come.  Never had atonement been made fully for sins.  Never had there been such a full and complete fellowship with God restored.  Never had there been those with a totally new nature now dwelling...the Holy Spirit dwelling in all of His fullness in them, duly constituting the very body of Christ with power. 

This was a new age. This was the New Testament.  This was the new covenant. This was when the law of God was written in the heart. This was when the stony heart was taken out and a heart of flesh was put in and the Spirit of God took up residence in men. And the church was all new and glorious and beautiful and pure and on fire.

Satan endeavoring to put out the fire externally was unsuccessful.  In fact, it was as if he was pouring gasoline on the fire and it only became worse, realizing that external pressure only fanned the flame, he then knew that he had to get inside and try to put out the fire at its base.  And that's exactly what we see happen here in this section of the book of Acts.  We come face to face here with the first incident recorded of sin in the church, the sins of the saints.  It's a heartbreaking text because it is the beginning of that which has continued to plague and debilitate and disease and cripple the church throughout its history.  Here is the beginning of the long sad story of the sins of the saints.  It will be my prayer as we think about the Lord's table this morning and briefly look at this text that the message of it would burn into our hearts the seriousness, the folly, and the far‑reaching damage of believers' sins.

It is also a reminder that the Bible has almost a stubborn honesty.  God doesn't gloss over anything, even concerning His own beloved church.  He could have endeavored to paint the picture more perfectly and leave out some of the flaws, but barely are we even into the life of the church and we see this terrible iniquity.  God never presents an untrue picture of anything, even the thing that is most precious to Himself, even that which He would most want men to trust, namely His church.  But the church is not perfect, it is a place for people who know they're ill.  It is a hospital for the spiritually sick.  It is not as Henry Knox Sherril(?) once said, "A nice clean refrigerator designed to keep a few select souls from spoiling."  It's not that. 

In fact, once a painter was painting a portrait of Cromwell and Cromwell was not the most handsome of men because his face was disfigured by many warts. This artist wanting to ingratiate himself in some way to the great Cromwell painted his portrait and left all the warts out. And when it was taken to Cromwell and displayed before him he said, "Take it away and paint me warts and all."  Well we admire the honesty, the integrity and the character of such a man and so is the stubborn honesty of Scripture that it does not hide the defects and the faults of the noblest of believers, even of the church.

Frankly, there's a certain encouragement in that because it shows us that even in its greatest days the church was not without sin.  That, of course, is the constant bane of the church, it was the most significant pain that Paul endured.  In 2 Corinthians 11 he talked about a lot of physical pain but he said the most difficult thing for me to endure is the care of the churches struggling with sinning Christians. That, of course, is a theme in most all of his epistles, and even the epistles written by others in the New Testament.  The burden of the church has always been to carry the sins of its own.  So, here we are in the book of Acts introduced for the first time to sin in the church, the sad plague that is constantly with us.

Now as we look at this text I want to begin in chapter 4 because I want to paint the backdrop that the Holy Spirit paints even if it's a sketchy one this morning against which the sin occurs in chapter 5.  We could call chapter 4 the sharing of the saints, and then chapter 5 the sinning of the saints.  Start at verse 32 with me, describing that early church in Jerusalem it says, "And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul."  The first thing about them, they were experiencing a real spiritual unity.  They were actually living out what Paul wanted the Philippians to experience when he said I want to hear that you're standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel.  Here was real unity in the church. They had one heart and one soul.  It was that for which the Apostle Paul also pled to the Corinthian believers that they too would be unified, that they would be one and not allow division and schism to tear them apart.  Here was a church with one heart and one soul.  All of those who were true in the faith, all of those who were genuine, all of those who really loved the Lord loved each other as well.  And that, of course, grows out of humility, grows out of consummate love for the Lord which sees oneself as nothing and out of that humility comes the ability to see others as better than oneself.  And out of that kind of vision comes the kind of love that brings about a true unity.

There was a second component that I would mention to you in that church that made it remarkable, that demonstrated its great strength and power and that is in verse 33, it says, "With great power the Apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ."  The first feature was their loving unity. The second was their strong preaching.  Powerful preaching was going on among those people and out from that church.  They had received the power of the Holy Spirit as had been promised in Acts 1:8 and they were now going forth in power and they were powerfully proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Frankly they were too busy loving each other, too busy sharing with each other, too busy preaching the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ to waste time with selfish pursuits or bickering or idle talk or gossip or backbiting or criticism or divisiveness or self‑will, self‑gratification, self‑glory. They really didn't have any time for their own things. They didn't have any time or energy to spend on trivial and passing and mundane things.  The text says in the imperfect tense, "They were continuing to give their witness." And this, of course, expressed an obligation but not one that went against their heart desire for this was their heart desire. They had established the priority.  The priority was to love one another and be united in one fellowship together and proclaim the risen Christ. That's what made them such a magnificent model church.

There was a third component that I would note for you here in the text.  It indicates it in verse 33, "Abundant grace was upon them all."  Which is another way of saying God was pouring out blessing.  Grace simply means God's favor...God's favor. They were being richly blessed with all the abundance of God's favor.  God was pouring out every good thing from heaven because they were one heart and soul, because they were faithful in the very reason for their existence, the proclamation of the gospel of the resurrection to the world around them.  And they knew the favor of God, the blessing of God.  The Lord was adding daily such as should be saved, it says down in chapter 5, adding to their number constantly as it did in chapter 2 when it said they were adding such as should be saved. The Lord was also giving them miraculous power, verse 12 of chapter 5 says many signs and wonders were being done, and verse 15, even the sick out in the street that were laid on cots and pallets when Peter came by his shadow falling on them. They had seen so much power. They wanted to get under the shadow of Peter believing that this power could touch and heal them.  God was just pouring out a display of saving and healing power in that church.  And so, this was really what God wanted His church to be, evidence of His spiritual presence. 

And then we go back to verse 32 for a moment and demonstrate one other thing, a fourth component that was certainly characteristic of the church.  It says that not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own but all things were common property to them.  Now people did own things, this isn't a communist situation, you can go back in to chapter 2 verses 44 and 45 you'll read about the same thing.  But whatever it was they owned they were willing to sell if somebody else had a need.  Now keep this in mind, many people had come to Jerusalem, been converted and they were pilgrims from other lands. They didn't want to go back because there was no church so they stayed.  Who was going to support them?  Who was going to care for them?  And in the founding of the church, of course, it would be true as it was through the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian church that God had chosen not many mighty and not many noble and generally it would be the poor of the world and they needed resources. And so those who had would be willing to sell what they had to meet the needs of those who did not have. And so in verse 32 he says, and this is a marvelous statement, "Not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own." That is the proper perspective on all material possessions.  On anything you own, any money that you possess, anything in the bank, anything in savings, any stocks, bonds, properties, it's not yours.  You simply hold it for the cause of the Kingdom to be released at the prompting of the Spirit of God to accomplish spiritual means, accomplish spiritual goals I should say.  God would have us have the same attitude.

This church was remarkable because of its unity.  It was remarkable because of its devotion to preach the gospel.  It was remarkable because it was being showered with God's power and grace.  And it was remarkable because everybody looked at everything they had and saw it as belonging to whoever needed it more than they did.  That is a church the way God wants a church to be.  We look at the church today and we wonder if there's much resemblance.  Churches struggle with a lack of unity. They equivocate on the powerful straight‑forward proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and all that is involved in gospel preaching.  They seem to demonstrate very little of an abundant grace being poured out upon them and they know little or almost nothing about what it means to make sacrifices or what it means to hold everything that you hold as a stewardship not really owning any of it.

Down in verse 34 it tells us how this attitude of sharing worked its way out.  There was not a needy person among them.  There wasn't a needy person there.  For all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the Apostles' feet and they would be distributed to each as any had need.  Somebody would say, "Well I don't really need this land and I'd like to sell this land and I'll give the money to the Apostles and they can give it to the people in need."  "Well I don't really need that big house, I'll...I'll move to a humbler place, I can live in another place and I'll sell that and I'll give the money to the Apostles and they can distribute it to those who don't have a place to live at all."  That was life in that church.  What a magnificent, what a beautiful kind of life.  It was just that very kind of life that our Lord had designed for His church.  If I have something that you need I give it to you.  What generosity.

And then there's an illustration of this kind of unity, this kind of love, this kind of sharing in verse 36 and 37.  "And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the Apostles, which translated means Son of Encouragement, who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the Apostles' feet."

Here's an illustration.  It's not just a generic description in verses 34 and 35, here's a very specific illustration of a Christian who held all things in trust from God, didn't believe that anything that he had was really his own. And when it became apparent that others had needs, he went out and sold his land and brought the money and laid it at the Apostles' feet.  It was for the distribution of the Apostles.  He was happy to do this.  He didn't need to determine the ultimate end of the money.  He wasn't concerned with where it went.  All he wanted to do was give it. And so he did.

We know this man, don't we?  His name was Joseph and he was a Levite.  That's kind of an interesting thing because you remember the tribe of Levi was a priestly family and the priests couldn't own any land so you can already begin to see the passing of the old covenant ways.  Here is a man in the Levite heritage who owns a piece of land.  And furthermore, his name was Joseph but it became Barnabas.  Barnabas was probably a nickname.  He was such an encourager.  He was known for that.  He was the kind of a man who was strong in faith who was full of faith, really if you read into Acts chapter 11, it gives him such wonderful description.  It says he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  He was a man known for his comfort.  He was a man known for his exhortation.  He was a counselor.  He was somebody who could come alongside people and change their life by his influence and his teaching.  Probably before the Apostle Paul the most notable teacher in the church.  No doubt they nicknamed him Barnabas because everywhere he went he encouraged people so much.

So here is this godly man full of the Holy Spirit, full of faith, this man doing what the rest did, giving up his land and no doubt something of great value to him and giving his money away to people who would basically consume it immediately and he would never have any kind of physical or material return on it.

This is to point up what was going on in the church.  This is just one illustration.  That man, of course, later went on to be a very well‑known companion of the Apostle Paul.  But that's the backdrop in chapter 4, the church is in unity, it's sharing love and fellowship.  It's true to the message it's supposed to proclaim.  There is a tremendous experience of outpouring of grace and people are sharing sacrificially.  That's the beautiful backdrop.

But then you come to verse 1 of chapter 5 and notice it, "But..."  One could almost wish that the chapter division wasn't there because there really isn't any break in the narrative here.  And I know that the Holy Spirit wanted to paint what was about to happen against the backdrop of what we have just read...the purity, the love, the zeal, the unity, the sacrifice, the generosity, the integrity of what was going on in that church is the backdrop. But what happens here suddenly is an ugly sad portrait of two people who violated the integrity of the church.  And we move from the sharing of the saints to the sinning of the saints.

Verse 1, "But a certain man named Ananias," and that means gracious, "and his wife Sapphira or Sapphire," means beautiful, "sold a piece of property."  So Gracious and Beautiful sold a piece of property.

Verse 2, "And kept back some of the price for himself with his wife's full knowledge and bringing a portion of it he laid it at the Apostles' feet."  Now the story of Ananias is to the book of Acts what the story of Achan is to the book of Joshua.  In both narratives an act of deceit interrupts the victorious progress of the people of God.  Giving was a result of being filled with the Spirit and here we see what results from being filled with Satan.

Now there are several things to note in this particular text.  The first one is the sinful pretence.  Two members sold their land, they wanted to get in on some of the...some of the accolades.  They wanted to be perceived as spiritual, godly, sacrificial.  And so, they made a pretense. They had publicly stated that they too like Barnabas were going to sell a piece of land and they were going to give it all to the Lord, laying it at the Apostles' feet to be distributed among those who had need. They were going to make that supreme sacrifice as others had made it.  And nobody really did that for self‑glory otherwise the character of the church would not have been maintained. But these were true Christians who did it out of love and a willing sacrifice and did it because they loved the Lord and because they knew people had real needs.  This was being done legitimately.

But going along with it there was certainly the affirmation of the congregation...there is a godly man, there is a godly person who would do that...and there was an awful lot of gratitude being poured out to those people who had made that sacrifice.  You can be sure the beneficiaries would come back to the Barnabas‑type folks in the congregation and say, "Thank you so much for what you've done to make my life possible."  And Ananias and Sapphira wanted to cash in on some of that. The others were willing to do it without the accolades, they wanted it for that reason.

So they pretended that they were going to sell a piece of land and give it all to the Lord.  The sin is not that they didn't give it all.  God never asked for it.  They could have kept it.  They didn't have to sell it.  They could have said, "We're going to sell it and give half and use half to do something else."  The sin was not that they didn't give it all.  The sin was not in keeping some of it back.  The sin on the surface was the act of lying because they had vowed to the Holy Spirit to give it all.  And they made the pretense when they came forward on that Sunday that they were putting it all at the Apostles' feet but they were actually holding back some secretly.

Behind the lie that they were perpetrating was the secret sin of hypocrisy, the longing for self‑glory that breeds the hypocrite.  Secret sin on earth, you know, is always open scandal in heaven.  It's not always clearly revealed but this time it will be. 

So they sought to gain prestige and to be thought of as great godly people. They wanted glory for themselves.  They were hypocrites. They were phonies.  The lie grew out of the hypocritical self‑love in their hearts.  They thought they could gain their intended goal of being thought godly and stuff a little cash in their pockets at the same time.  Hypocrisy then becomes the dirty sin creating the impression that they were spiritual, that they were giving all when they really weren't. And thus did Satan move from persecuting the church on the outside to corrupting the church on the inside. And this is, by the way, a sin which God hates, hypocrisy. And that's exactly the sin that they exhibit here.  No one is so ugly in God's eyes as the one who tries to paint himself spiritual when that is not the case.

What happened?  Verse 3, "Peter confronts them. And Peter said, Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land?  While it remained unsold did it not remain your own? And after it was sold was it not under your control?  Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart?  You have not lied to men but to God."

Peter, I'm sure, by the power of the Holy Spirit was able to discern what was going on.  It was revealed to him that Ananias was lying.  The people were all gathered. They had all come together to worship the Lord.  He parades up, puts his gift down, says this is all that I got from selling the land.  And Peter confronts him right there in front of everybody, "Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?  Why have you allowed that to happen?"  It isn't that it was an unwilling thing.  He's not some poor victim of Satan who moved in on him. He hatched the plot under temptation that gave place to Satan.  And Satan came right on in and took over and led him to the full operation of this ruse in front of the church.  "Why have you allowed yourself to get into that kind of a situation?"

Then in verse 4 he says, "You could have kept it, it was yours. After you sold it you didn't have to say you were going to give all the money.  Why would you do that?"  Well the answer is he wanted to say he was giving all so he could be in the same elite category as others who had done it, but he didn't have the character to do that and so he was a liar. 

God's action is swift.  Verse 5, "As he heard these words, as he was listening to Peter confront him, Ananias fell down and breathed his last."  He dropped dead, executed by God in front of the whole congregation.  What I would say would be that God is moving fairly rapidly to deal with sin, wouldn't you?  God is moving very fast to perform surgery to cut out the cancer from the body.  Judgment is swift and fatal.  By the way, sin will always be judged by death, it's not always this fast. But the church needed to know how God felt about sin, about hypocrisy, about lying.  I believe this was divine judgment and it was instantaneous and everybody got the message.  Verse 5 says, "Great fear came upon all who heard of it."

There was just a tremendous wave over the church.  This man had been smitten by God under the load of his own horror‑stricken conscience.  He was up there in front to get all the glory, ready to be praised and Peter's words and the power of God stopped his heart.  It so shocked him that he died instantly.

Verse 6 says, "The young men arose and covered him up, after carrying him out they buried him."  The Jews didn't wait at all they just buried him immediately.  And so they took him out and buried him.

Verse 7, "Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours and his wife came in not knowing what had happened."  Now I've heard of being slow getting ready for church but three hours seems a bit much.  By the way, I would like to just put this in for what it's worth.  Would you please notice three hours have passed and the service is still going on.  This is in a time when people were serious about church.  His wife came in three hours later, no doubt appropriately coifed to be praised for her great sacrifice.  So she comes in.  And Peter immediately confronts her.  Now remember the people are all there.  "Tell me, whether you sold the land for such and such a price?  She said yes that was the price. Then Peter said to her, Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?"  Why are you trying to test whether God is going to uphold a standard?  Why are you doing that?  "Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door and they'll carry you out as well.  And she immediately fell at his feet and breathed her last.  And the young men came in and found her dead...they just got back from burying her husband...and carried her out and buried her beside her husband."

Now I would like to think how that affected the offering.  I can only imagine they had a fairly good offering that Sunday.  What was the Lord saying to His church?  He was saying I'm dead serious about sin.  We're not playing church, this is no social gig, this is not a place where you can play fast and loose with God. And they got the message.  I mean, they really got the message.  Great fear, verse 5 says, came upon all who heard about it.

Down in verse 13, "None of the rest dared to associate with them, however, the people held them in high esteem." They respected them but they didn't join.  I mean, the word was out around town, people die in there, you better be serious.

Now what's the point of all of this as we think about the Lord's table?  The point is simply this, the Lord wants His church pure and as dramatic as He could possibly do it He sent a message to the church, the first time sin reared its ugly head in a public way by executing the two people who perpetrated it.  God hates the sins of the saints.  A church is no place to sin.  And the bottom line, of course, is that the church was designed to keep people out who aren't serious about holiness...not to tolerate sin.  No sin is little. 

Somebody might have rationalized, "I mean, my goodness, why don't you kill somebody who didn't give anything, this guy gave a lot, maybe he gave half, maybe he gave over half, he's probably got a lot more if you offend him like this where's the rest of his giving going to come from?  He's dead now, he can't help you in the future."  I mean, you could have taken a pragmatic approach, but not so.  No such thing as a little sin.  God punishes sin. And as 1 Peter 4:17 says, "Judgment begins at the house of God."  It is a pure church that God wants.  It is a pure church that He will work to achieve.  We remember in Revelation chapter 1 how He moves among the candlesticks purging because purity opens up power and nothing saps the strength of the church but the sins of the saints. 

That's why we come to the Lord's table, beloved.  We have to be dealing with sin. And it isn't that God is necessarily going to kill people, although from time to time He does, 1 John 5 says there is a sin unto death, 1 Corinthians 11 tells us that there were some in the Corinthian church who were weak and sick and some had died because they had come to the Lord's table in a trivial and frivolous way.  There are people who, I suppose, in all generations of time have died, the Lord having executed them. They may have died through some natural means under the providence of God because of the way they treated Him and His church.  God is serious about it. 

But the message of Ananias and Sapphira is just that.  The Lord may not deal as immediately and dramatically with the sins of the saints in every case as He did with them. But the message is very very clear, God wants His church pure. And He wants a reputation of a pure church that will keep people out who don't seek the purity that is there.  So as we come to the Lord's table this morning, let us be reminded that the church which the Lord designed is a church that is pure and holy, a church that is united in love and righteousness, a church that is committed to preaching the pure and unadulterated gospel of the resurrection, a church that is seeing and experiencing the abundance of grace poured out by God, a church where people lovingly, sacrificially and generously share everything they have for the work of the Kingdom and the needs of others.

That's what He wants but in most cases what He gets is a church where there are some folks like that and other folks like Ananias and Sapphira.  It would be better for the church if those people were eliminated.  And sometimes it gets to that point where God just says, "Don't bother to pray for them, they've committed sin to the degree that I'm just going to take them out."  But in the meantime, before such serious judgment by God falls, He calls us to judge ourselves. And Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11 if you judge yourself you won't have to be judged by Him.  So we come to this table this morning needing to look at our own lives and confess our sin.  Let's bow together in prayer.

While your heads are bowed now as we prepare to share together in the time of communion, this is a very important few moments.  It's that time for you to confess your sin.  We led you through a prayer of confession after reading Psalm 32 and if there's anything in your life that you know of that you need to confess, confess it now.  If there's things that you're sure they're there and you can't identify them, in general ask the Lord to forgive you and cleanse you and tell Him you have a hatred of sin and you want to be clean. And if there's any selfishness, self‑glory, any hypocrisy, any possessiveness, any materialism, anything that displeases Him by way of attitude or act, confess that and ask Him to cleanse you.

Father, I do pray for this people that You would wash their sins away.  For those who have never met Jesus Christ, who do not know the Savior, may this be the day when they come to know Him.  For us who know You, who are Christians, who are Your children, if there's any sin in any of our lives, take it away, forgive us.  Give us a longing for what is right.  Help us to hold on to no sin but to be willing to release it all.  Bless our time now as we look back to the cross and remember the One who gave His life for us that our sin might be forgiven.